Friday, December 10, 2021

Psychotherapeutic humanities - Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery (Novel)

Vanity Fair (Novel)

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery published as a serial in a magazine in the 1840s has become, what some people, rate as one of the 100 most important English novels of all time.

Here is a summary from Spark Notes: 

Vanity Fair is a classic novel by English writer William Thackeray, first published in serialised form in the magazine Punch in 1847. The story is told within a frame narrative of a puppet show at a play, highlighting the unreliable nature of the events of the narrative. Vanity Fair follows the lives of Becky Sharp, a strong-willed, penniless young woman, and her friend Amelia 'Emmy' Sedley, a good-natured wealthy young woman. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Vanity Fair charts the girls' misadventures in love, marriage and family. Becky, manipulative, witty, and amoral, is Emmy's opposite, while Emmy, initially presented as the novel's heroine, is passive, sweet, likeable and a pawn to her family's wishes. Becky, forced to become a governess by circumstances, marries wealthy, while Emmy marries George a man disinherited by his prejudiced father. Critics of the time discussed Vanity Fair's misanthropic view of society, while later critics have called attention to the novel's depiction of the commodification of women in a capitalist society.

Thackeray as the narrator often interjects himself into the narrative with ironic comments. The novel was written for a general adult audience and is widely studied at the college level. This review is written for human service professionals.

The creative tension in the novel is derived from the class system in England in the first part of the nineteenth century when wealth also meant social status akin to the kind of social status that comes from family history. At this time, people could either attain social status through being a member of the titled aristocracy or accumulating wealth. The two main characters of the novel Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp are coming of age where the station at which one marries determines the kind of life the young woman and her children could expect to have. Amelia Sedley comes from accumulated wealth which her family loses and goes bankrupt while Rebecca Sharp is an orphan and through her powers of manipulation and seduction gains access to the upper rungs of English society.

As might be imagined, the intrigue and drama might do a soap opera proud were this story to be adapted to this genre in the twenty first century, 200 years after the first telling.

The novel questions the values of society and takes the position that vanity colors most of human social life especially when it comes to social class consciousness of the time. Amelia is portrayed as the good girl while Rebecca is portrayed as amoral and narcissistic. The reader is led to become conscious of and laugh at the pretensions of society and to question the whole existential basis for the egoistic values that we hold and which govern our lives.

This novel could be used in a college course on human behavior and social environment to demonstrate how societal values influence individual behavior. The novel also highlights that lack of self awareness as the characters sleepwalk through life with no awareness of how their society has molded them. While the narrator does not mock them, he does offer a more objective view of the puppet show in which each character is playing a part. This view reminded me of Shakespeare’s great line his play “As you like it” when Jacques says, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”

This novel is recommended for a general audience and especially for  professionals who intend to enter the field of human services in its many forms whether it is as a minister, a teacher, a nurse, a physician, a psychologist, a Social Worker, etc. This novel earns a 5 out of 5 stars.

PS - There have been many movies and TV series made of this novel.

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